Your best protections are thorough preparation for the worst and remaining eternally vigilant

Wakashio and its aftermath

By Stephen Spark

Mr Degnarain writing in the 21 August issue makes some very good points on the grounding of Wakashio and its aftermath, though I cannot agree with all of them. What follows is intended to stimulate thought and debate; I hope it will be taken in the friendly spirit in which it is offered.

Given the number of foreign environmental and other ‘experts’ in the country -‑ many doubtless looking to make a name for themselves by writing up their findings in academic journals – it’s clear that the shipping company’s team will not have the field to itself. If Nagashiki Shipping and Japan P&I Club make unsupportable claims about the state of the lagoon, then there will be plenty of others who can aid Mauritius’ case with their own assessments.

Of course, we should not be under any illusion that the lagoon was in a Paul et Virginie state of ecological innocence. What counts, though, is the decline from its state on 24 July to that on, say, 10 August. We will only be able to estimate the damage the spill has caused if we have full details about the pre-Wakashio state of the lagoon. Let us hope they exist.

As a very helpful video interview with English maritime lawyer Simon Daniels1 makes clear, getting adequate compensation is likely to be complicated. Unfortunately, Mauritius did not ratify the 1996 update to the Bunkers Convention, which would have provided an enhanced level of automatic compensation – hence the need to prove some level of criminal culpability by charging the captain under the Piracy and Maritime Violence Act. As its name suggests, the purpose of that Act, which was introduced at the height of the Somali piracy crisis, was principally to provide a way of prosecuting pirates rather than captains of errant ships, so it remains to be seen how well this tactic works. Interestingly, Mr Daniels stated that by keeping Captain Nandeshwar in custody Mauritius is breaching his human rights.

It’s reasonable enough for Mr Degnarain to advise the government to canvass a range of opinions on compensation and insurance, but I would caution against over-optimism. Mauritius cannot, on its own, change the way the global shipping and maritime insurance industries work. It will need to find how to get the best out of what exists rather than engaging in long and expensive legal battles in international courts that may waste time and money for no gain.

It would have helped if the government had invested sufficient resources in its maritime administration (the Shipping Department) to allow regular, active participation at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is the London-headquartered UN body charged with formulating maritime regulations, including those for environmental protection. But the Shipping Department doesn’t even have enough people to carry out its basic functions such as inspecting ships – the 2019 report of the Indian Ocean Memorandum of Understanding shows that Mauritius carried out just ONE port state control inspection (PSC) last year. PSC inspections are vital to ensure that ships visiting Port Louis comply with safety requirements and the all-important welfare provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention.

I am not criticising the Shipping Department’s personnel. They are experienced professionals who I have every reason to believe are doing their best, but there are too few of them and they clearly need more support. It can be argued that failure to take maritime seriously by successive governments contributed to the disastrous consequences of the Wakashio grounding. There is no way that Mauritius can realise any of its grandiose dreams of becoming a bunkering hub or a cruise hub or of making a fortune out of the Blue Economy without addressing the black hole in its maritime administration.

The Chagos Archipelago

Mr Degnarain mentions the possibly accurate, but certainly undiplomatic and unhelpful, comments by Henry Smith about the spill undermining confidence in Mauritius’ ability to manage the pristine environment of the Chagos Archipelago. The author should relax a little: Smith is just an MP, and one that few people in Britain have ever heard of. Suggesting that he is part of some global communications campaign against Mauritius is a conspiracy theory too far. Nevertheless, Mauritius is going to have a hard job to convince the world it can be a responsible landlord of the Chagos and its vast EEZ when it cannot even protect the reef at Pointe d’Esny.

Even while dealing with the remains of Wakashio and the heartbreaking effects of the oil spill, a priority now should be to try to prevent any repetition.

Bolstering its maritime administration, mentioned above, is one urgent task. Amongst other benefits, this will allow Mauritius’ voice to be heard at the IMO. Mauritius needs to make alliances with neighbouring countries and territories – all of which have a shared interest in the safety and management of the Indian Ocean – and also with small island states in other parts of the world. Many face exactly the same threats to their biosecurity and way of life from ships passing close to their shores.

How best to ensure the safety of the reefs, lagoons and coastline of Mauritius? Compensation apart, that surely is the crucial question.

One option would be to apply to the IMO to have the seas around Mauritius declared a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area2. This would be marked on nautical charts, making it very clear that ships should not transit through those waters. Vessels would be required to keep to specific sea lanes in a traffic separation system (TSS).To achieve this, Mauritius would need to bring together as many allies as possible so it can make a strong, evidence-based case at the IMO.

The protection a PSSA would provide would remain merely theoretical unless it could be properly monitored, patrolled and enforced. Those duties would fall to the National Coast Guard. If we have learned one thing from this sorry saga, it’s surely that there are some serious failings within the NCG, which perhaps needs fundamental reform. While there are some superb professionals within the NCG, its internal communications and systems appear to be poor; like other state organisations, it is paralysed by protocols.

No coastal surveillance and warning system, however sophisticated, will be of the slightest use if vital equipment is offline or awaiting repair. Shipping is a 24/7, 365 days a year activity – it won’t wait for Mauritius to fix its radar warning station or AIS unit. You must always assume that an emergency can happen NOW. That emergency will probably be quite unlike the last one. The next crisis may be a ship on fire in the port or a passenger vessel capsizing 100 nautical miles from shore in the Mauritian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – what is the NCG going to do then? What are its plans for dealing with each and every shipping disaster scenario? Has it got the people, the training and the equipment to handle a big cruise ship in trouble or an Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carrier on fire? These are real world issues that need serious answers.

It’s not only the people of Mauritius who need to know; it’s also the people who operate, serve on, travel on and depend on the ships that pass through the EEZ. Mauritius owes a duty of care to every person on every ship that passes through its massive maritime domain.

The Metro Express

Finally, I must take issue with Mr Degnarain’s remarks on Metro Express: “Rather than look forward, Mauritius built a transport system built on a 200-year old technology ‑ trains. In every country in the world, they are looking at developing autonomous vehicle technologies. Why is Mauritius building trains?”

Well, Mauritius is not building trains; they were built in Italy! Hard-surfaced roads are a 2000-year-old technology but surely no one suggests that we should get rid of them because they were around in Roman times! Mauritius’ light rail system is clean, modern and sophisticated. Like most modern transit systems, it’s capable of being operated autonomously in the same way as the Docklands Light Railway in London, to name one example. I am sure there were good reasons for deciding to operate it in the traditional way with drivers – perhaps Mr Degnarain can ask the question of MEL CEO Das Mootanah, a former colleague of mine – but I can assure him that rail technology has moved on a very long way indeed from George Stephenson’s Rocket!

Which takes me back to ships. Much criticism has been aimed at the supposedly outdated shipping industry for using dirty fuel such as the heavy fuel oil that spilled out of Wakashio. The fact that it was very low sulphur heavy fuel oil (HFO) is proof of one advance being made. Ships must comply with ever-stricter anti-pollution regimes, from treating ballast water and safe discharge of waste (you’re not allowed to chuck it overboard any more) to installing massive ‘scrubbers’ to remove pollutants from engine exhausts. Go to Norway and you will find ships powered by much cleaner methods such as LNG and batteries.

Ships have a design life of about 25-30 years and represent massive investment, so change will take time, but under the IMO’s environmentally minded secretary general, Kitack Lim, the industry is moving in the right direction, albeit too slowly for many of us.

But how do you deal with the biggest single cause of shipping accidents: human error? Get rid of the humans, is one answer! The first autonomous ships are already on trial. In theory, there would be no tired officer to set a wrong course at 2 o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, humans will always be there in every part of the chain, from writing the controlling computer programs to setting the course in some remote office in Japan rather than on the ship’s bridge.

Whether you are talking about cars, trains or ships, even autonomy won’t remove human error completely, so your best protections are thorough preparation for the worst and remaining eternally vigilant.

Stephen Spark is a UK-based maritime journalist and book editor. For the past 20 years he has been reporting for international publications on port expansion, piracy, maritime safety and security, and airport development in the Indian Ocean. In his spare time he has been researching the history of the Mauritius Government Railways.


* Published in print edition on 25 August 2020

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